Celebrating its U.S. Premiere this Thursday, September 30th, at the 2021 Fantastic Fest in Austin is the genre-bender Saloum from co-writer/director Jean Luc Herbulot. A horror / action / thriller hybrid, Saloum is easily one of the writer’s top five films that she’s seen during this year’s fest, and I highly recommend keeping an eye out for when you may have a chance to check it out for yourself. Starring Yann Gael, Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba, Saloum transports us back to the year 2003 as a trio of mercenaries on the run are forced to hide out in the small village of Saloum, Senegal, unaware of the dangers that lurk all around them.
Recently, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Herbulot about his latest project, and he discussed the inspirations behind the story of Saloum, giving audiences an unexpected ride with a story that he co-wrote with Pamela Diop, and more.
Great to speak with you today, Jean Luc. I think that what you and your team created with Saloum is something really unique and special, and I loved it. I'd love to start at the beginning and talk a little bit about this story and what was the inspiration behind it? I enjoyed how you were able to blend together some very heavy, real-world issues, but were able to carry it into this supernatural story at the center of it all.
Well, it all started with my partner Pamela Diop. We created Lacme Studio Company in Senegal because we wanted to show a different face of African cinema. And so Pamela proposed to me when we created the company, she said, "I'm going to bring you to my birth region; let's see if something inspires us there." And what a great idea it was because the first time I arrived there, I was like, “We need to make a movie here.” During our brainstorm weekend, we started to talk about that camp in the Saloum where everything could go south. With that idea, I went and I started working on my side of the story and that's where the Hyenas were created and that's where Chaka (Gael) and his journey was created, and that’s when I figured out this whole group of people who were stuck in this village.
In terms of the mythology that you explored here, was that based on something real or was that something that you and Pamela came up with together? I also loved how you were able to visually represent the creatures in this film - it’s really cool and innovative.
Well, if it was that real, I wouldn't be here to talk to you today (laughs). But the cursed king that they're talking about, it's a real story. It's real mythology. That is from the Saloum. And so this story is real. This myth is real. This curse is real. Now beyond that, what's the curse and how does it work? I don't know yet. I don't want to know (laughs). But that was our starting point. It was essential for me that, if we were going to shoot the Saloum region, we wanted to be as respectful as we could be, especially for Pamela, because that's her birth region.
But I really wanted to show to the audience that there are a lot of stories and myths and monsters from Africa that should be explored that we’ve never seen before. And with the design of the creatures, I don't want to go into too much detail, but what I will say is that the idea came from me trying to get away from all the references that I grew up with and that we all know, and try to make something that is different and scary.
Something else that I appreciated about how you framed the story here is that within a few minutes of the movie starting, you already know everything you need to know about these three core characters, Chaka, Rafa, and Minuit. To me, that is such a tricky thing to pull off, but I think you do it really well here. What was your creative process like, in terms of creating these three anti-heroes at the center of Saloum?
Well, that’s all part of the basis of crafting characters and that's also a mechanism of what you try to do in a movie. For example, Saloum is all about trapping the audience. It was all about, “Hey, it's going to be fun at the beginning, and you’re going to meet these three men who have all this charisma, and there’s all this action and great music. That’s all a trap device for the audience, to get them to willingly enter their world. And after that, I needed the audience to want to follow those guys and go with them through this story once things take a turn.
The concept of the Hyenas alone came to me as a universe all by themselves. I had pages and pages of background for these guys. And the version that you saw, which is one hour and 20 minutes, was before that, two hours and 20 minutes. So there was one hour more of background stories and stuff. But that two-hour version just felt like it was going in every direction, and I really wanted this movie to be focused on the most important thing, which is the quest of Chaka. Another theme of Saloum is - what's a hero? These guys aren’t supposed to be heroes, but yet, they are heroes even if they’re not always the good guys. I wanted to show that there were ways to create heroes with layers to them.
So, from a B movie standpoint, it was interesting for me to go into things that are deeper, and at the same time, make them believable. Especially because we’re dealing with two kinds of monsters here - the real-life monsters and the supernatural kinds, too.
I know we're already getting close on time, but I wanted to talk about working with your cinematographer Gregory [Corandi] on Saloum. Usually when you’re making a horror movie, you can rely on things like the darkness and lean into those darker visuals to create a tone and atmosphere. But most of this movie takes place in daylight. Can you talk about working with him to capture the beauty of this locale, because it was stunning, but also the challenges you may have faced while trying to create this mood and everything, but you’re doing it in complete daylight?
Well, thank you first because you didn't ask me for my references. Because most of the time people ask me, "Oh, so what are your references?", and I'm like, "Well, mine." So it’s nice to talk about something a little different (laughs). But not to be cocky, I just wanted this movie to be as unique as we could make it. We knew that on the business side of things, there are no movies like this coming from Africa. So when we were thinking about our monsters, we thought about how in most horror movies, you only see the monsters at night, right? So I wanted to go entirely a different way, which was being able to fully see our monsters and in broad daylight.
And working with Gregory, the DP, was great. We were living in the camp that you see in the movie. So when you see those characters fighting in that colorful room with a lot of lights and all that - that was my room. Greg was sleeping in that room with me, too. I knew that in order to make this movie, I really needed the entire team to be with me and I needed us to be a community there in that camp. And since we didn't have any internet or any computers or whatever, Greg and I were able to talk about everything at night and go in depth into everything we wanted to do. Those sessions bonded us and we became brothers in arms.